How Paul Almost Died

As the new season is just getting underway, we started chatting about previous seasons and their highs and lows – literally. A seemingly innocuous run down Glenshee’s Coire Fionn was almost Paul’s last.

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It was a Sunday in mid-January, although the mild weather meant that conditions were more spring-like, with slushy snow on top of an already thin base. We didn’t mind though, we were just delighted to be there after such a late start to the season. Although Cairngorm gets all the press, we love Glenshee. Often called the 3 valleys of Scotland, it feels like such an adventure as you head up and over each hill, with the crowds thinning out the further out you get from the main car park. It has the added bonus of being just 2 hours’ drive from Glasgow and Edinburgh, making it perfect for a day trip, where Aviemore’s distance means we really need a weekend to make it worthwhile.

I was slightly ahead of Paul as we came down, and near the end of the run the snow was getting a bit bare in places, with yellow poles marking some hazards. I negotiated my way round these and waited by the Poma for Paul to arrive. He was on a downhill section, and ahead of him were a flat area then the final downhill which had the hazards. I could see him about to approach the flat area, and he started to carve sharply on his toe edge so that his board was at right angles to the slope. Then, as he approached the flat area he disappeared from view for a second, which is what I expected based on the angle of the slope. The next thing I saw was just his board going over his head in what just looked like a normal fall, so I had a little chuckle. Then he disappeared from view again.

I waited a few seconds for him to reappear, but to my dismay he didn’t. I was beginning to understand the gravity of the situation when I saw two nearby skiers unclipping and running to where he was. I started sprinting up the hill, only to see the chilling sight of Paul’s board upside down on the snow, with his body down a hole. Even worse, I could see similar holes further down, all with water inside them – this was a river covered by snow, snow which was collapsing.

By the time I reached him, the skiers had helped wrestle him free, he was soaked and looked petrified. His only words as we were escorted to the patrol hut were “disbelief, that should have been marked.” And he was right, it was the only hazard without the crossed poles above it. He told me about the experience while we were waiting for the snowmobile to take him back to base. “I hit a little jump and started to fall backwards, expecting to hit the snow at any second. But the journey continued until I was submerged in icy cold water for a good couple of minutes. I had to hold myself in a sit-up position until they freed me, to stop myself from drowning. I feel genuinely lucky to be alive.”

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We were chatting to the lifty as he was making Paul a cup of tea. Paul realised that his hat and goggles were missing since the fall. When we asked the lifty about the chance of getting them back he laughed, “No chance mate. I set up a net down the river at the start of the season, and when the snow melts I collect everything I find and I sell it on eBay.”

Summer Skiing in Austria

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Date: September 1st, Author: Chris Reynolds

I roll over, stretch for the remote and flick the TV to channel 19 for the webcam channel. Disappointment. There are only two things on screen, the Hintertux logo and complete whiteness.

We don’t have the option of postponing until tomorrow, we are on a 2 week, 4 country tour of Europe and our schedule doesn’t allow it. When we had planned this trip, we wrote down a list of everything we wanted to do in Europe. Top of my girlfriend’s list was to go to Salzburg to see the sights from The Sound of Music, top of mine was to go summer snowboarding on a glacier. After deciding where to go and doing a whole lot of research into it, we still didn’t know what to expect.

A 45 minute bus ride from Mayrhofen, the Hintertux glacier is one of the few places in the world that is open every day of the year. This ski guarantee is one of the reasons that the Snowbombing music festival is held in the region. The ice is up to 120 metres thick in some places, and its volume is estimated at 190 million cubic metres.

The mood is sombre as we eat breakfast and hop on the bus to Tux, both of us questioning why we are the only ones on board under 50. The average age of the guests here must double in summer, with skiers and boarders being replaced by hikers.

We get off the bus and head to the deserted ticket counter where we tell the friendly woman that, despite our backpacker attire, we’d like to go snowboarding. She politely points us in the direction of the rental shop, and tells us that there is 40cm fresh powder on the glacier. Fresh snow but complete whiteout, the ultimate sting in the tail.

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After getting our gear (including standard issue red rental jackets) and heading up the first gondola, it just seems so surreal that it’s summer. Just now it is 0 degrees celcius, only 2 days ago we were in Salzburg, baking in 30 degree heat. The next problem transpires when we look up at the LED piste map. My girlfriend has only ever had a couple of lessons, and it soon becomes clear that no beginner runs are open. “We’ll be fine” is my optimistic response to her concerns.

The first – and only – run of the morning proves to be difficult, with choppy snow adding to our woes. My girlfriend spends a lot of time on her backside, and we have a laugh at the marks that are left on the snow from the dye on her pink ski pants. When we reach the bottom we head for a well-earned lunch break at the restaurant.

After lunch I head out solo, gaining a personal photographer. After a couple of uneventful runs the amazing happens, the sun manages to fight its way through the cloud to reveal acres of untouched powder. Where I had previously been sticking to the markers and riding the tracked out snow, I can now see the sides of the pistes with what must have been over a metre of fresh. And I have the place pretty much to myself.

Even though there is barely anyone else to fight against for the fresh lines, I still find myself running for the next gondola when I hit the bottom. After a few more runs I get more adventurous and duck the rope, but I daren’t go too far out. At various points beneath the blanket of snow I can see the ridges and crevasses of the glacier, and I don’t want to push my luck. At the end of the day I just can’t wipe the grin off my face.

It’s September. There is fresh snow. There are barely any other resorts open in the northern hemisphere. I didn’t know what to expect from this place, but I didn’t expect this.

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Sandboarding in Huacachina

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As I cling on for dear life to the racing-car seatbelt straps of the dune buggy, I am thankful that I fastened them as tight as I did. Imagine a roller coaster but without that comforting thought in the back of your mind that you are on rails and that everything is safe. We are helpless as the driver launches us over yet another blind crest at breakneck speed.The sign above my head advising me that tips are welcome seems optimistic at this point. Our quest for an unusual downhill thrill has led us to Huacachina in Peru, an oasis in the Atacama desert surrounded by immense sand dunes, which at this moment I am sure are going to be the death of me. It has been an epic journey even to get to this point – comprising of three flights, a bus and a tuk tuk ride.

It is late afternoon, and the searing heat of the day is only just subsiding. A collective sigh of relief is apparent when the buggy finally comes to a stop, and we step out into an environment that could just as well be from another planet. We are handed a sandboard and – strangely – a candle. Not in case it gets dark, but to rub along the bottom of the board to make it slide more easily. The board itself is around half the size of a snowboard, made from hard wood and has velcro straps for bindings. The driver tells us to stay together and provides us no comfort in telling us that we are in the driest desert on earth. We are all lined up along the edge of our first dune and everyone is waiting for someone else to go first. The group is a diverse one, including not only Peruvians but English, Dutch, French and Australians. I take comfort in the fact that most people in the group are probably not snowboarders so I hop over the edge first.

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The first thing that strikes me is a lack of support, while a snowboard has secure bindings that you have complete faith in, the velcro straps feel inadequate. It feels as if I am riding a skateboard, simply balancing on it with nothing holding me on. This makes me nervous to turn and I end up carving as little as possible on my way down. When I reach the flat sand at the bottom, the front of my board digs in and I have a comical cartwheel-style tumble, much to the amusement of the audience above. The next problem then reveals itself, I need to get back up the dune, in the sweltering heat, and there is not a chairlift in sight.

As the afternoon progresses, the height of the dunes increase, as does our confidence. We find ourselves becoming more deliberate with our turns, but never quite get that sense of control that we get from snowboarding. There is a real sense of camaraderie different to that in a ski resort, as the buggy takes us from dune to dune and the group is always close together. Good runs are celebrated and falls are lightheartedly mocked all round. Some of the group have given up on standing and have decided to lie head-first on the board.

As the sun goes down, we realise that the highlight of this adventure is not carving up the sand, but the environment itself. Miles from civilisation in all directions, with the setting sun highlighting the ripples in the sand, the like of which any groomer would be proud. It is almost completely dark on the buggy ride back back to the oasis, with the twinkling lights in the distance signalling that a cool beer and a dip in the pool are not far away.

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Glencoe Hobbit House

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We can’t contain our excitement as we set off on the 2 hour drive North from Glasgow to Glencoe, arguably one of the most picturesque routes in the country. The journey is part of the appeal of this trip and we pass through various picture-perfect scenes, courtesy of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

Glencoe has adapted in recent years, the unpredictable Scottish weather has inspired them to offer more than just snow sports, and today we are here to experience one of their latest offerings, their Hobbit Houses. A Hobbit House (or Microlodge) is a small wooden cabin sleeping up to 4 people, containing a small double bed and two small singles. For such an enclosed space it manages to pack in plenty of features, including 5 plug sockets, an oil heater, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and fully-lockable double doors. Double doors which open out onto beautiful mountains no less.

All you need to bring are sleeping bags, pillows and towels. Adjacent to the lodges is a shower block, essentially a portakabin providing coin-operated hot showers for £1. There is also a drying room where you can store wet clothes at no cost so that they are ready for the next day. Beside this is the main lodge which has a cafe/bar and the toilets which are accessible 24 hours a day for overnight guests.

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We head out of the car park to walk part of the West Highland Way which is right on the doorstep, taking in the stunning views and working up an appetite for dinner before heading back. The lodge is quiet so we are lucky enough to be able to sit on the couch right in front of the roaring log fire as the sun goes down. For dinner we have the delicious Glencoe Burger which is their speciality, containing haggis and venison, then head back to the Hobbit House.

It is absolutely freezing when we get back, so we definitely recommend putting on the oil heater before you intend to turn in for the night. We put on our thermals for the next hour or so while it heats up, and after that it becomes so cosy that we drift off to a great nights sleep. We wake up to a dusting of fresh snow, adding to the beauty of the place. We get our gear on and then quite possibly the best feature of the Hobbit Houses makes itself apparent. We are only a stone’s throw from the lift, and this is the only ski resort in Scotland that can boast that.

We have beaten the crowds and have a fantastic day on the hill. Fresh snow on top of a soft base, with plenty of untouched stashes to be found even into the afternoon. As more people arrive these become harder to find, but we relish the challenge. We suspect that the top T-Bar is broken until we realise that it’s closing time, 4pm had snuck up on us. As we head back to the car and past the Hobbit Houses, we wish we were staying another night.

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